Writers: Are You Hemingway or Fitzgerald?

Friends insisted I read the memoir Wild. I finally got around to it.

It’s a good read, with a banging narrative about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. And obviously it’s a raging success for writer Cheryl Strayed, who doesn’t need my editing advice. But the writing style showcases a common divergence among writers. Basically, are you Hemingway or Fitzgerald? Knowing which you are, and how to temper that tendency, will make you a better writer.

Any English major is familiar with the battle between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The two writers (who shared the same editor) competed for readers and accolades during their parallel careers, and frequently bashed each other’s polarizingly different styles. Hemingway believed in active verbs driving forceful, simple sentences. For example, Hemingway on writing, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Fitzgerald favored more flowery, “literary” construction supported by clever insights. His take on being a writer, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”

Strayed is definitely a Fitzgerald, and for me that style of writing often feels meandering and self-conscious. I’m a hardcore Hemingway, and while I like Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, sometimes this style seems like it is trying too hard, with $40-dollar words and intellectual musings to say, “Look at me, I’m a writer!” Fitzgerald pulled it off, but novice writers emulating that style can seem insecure.

Of course, Fitzgerald fans would happily dismiss Hemingway as too simplistic, writing for a 2nd-grade reading level and not giving the reader his or her money’s worth of beautiful literary phrases. It’s like Picasso’s cubist works – unless you grasp the skill and intelligence behind the simple lines, the work can look blunt and childlike.

Obviously there are readers for both styles, but being aware of your own style will help you keep it from running away with you. It will also prevent writing groups and teachers from coaching you in an inauthentic direction as you develop your voice. There are gifted writers who can swing both ways, working a broad range of skills and voices when the work calls for it.

So, ask yourself, am I a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald?

Fitzgerald hallmarks:

  • Complex sentences
  • Describing abstract ideas and thoughts
  • SAT word choices
  • Using 3 words when 1 will do

Hemingway hallmarks:

  • Short sentences
  • Active verbs
  • Allergic to adjectives and adverbs
  • Describing action, not thoughts

Think about your own writing, and what you want it to accomplish. I probably developed my Hemingway tendencies as a budding business writer, struggling to turn complex stories into engaging, clear narratives. Poets or novelists make a living by playing more word games, dazzling the reader with pretty phrases and thoughtful construction.

But going too far in the Fitzgerald direction reminds me of the same mistake chefs make when they jump on a food trend. Chef Gordon Ramsay, before he became the cursing buffoon of America’s kitchens, used to host a charming BBC series in which he helped rescue failing restaurants. In one episode, he advises a young chef in Scotland trying to win a Michelin star (which Ramsay had already accomplished).

Ramsay told the young chef to quit throwing so many food elements on the plate. It confused the diner, Ramsay explained, and it revealed a basic insecurity on the part of the cook. Michelin reviewers don’t want a fusion of whatever-Asian-green-is-trendy plus the-new-umami-flavoring. They want the kind of confidence that says, “Here are three ingredients. Cooked perfectly.”

The flip side is that basic diner food can usually benefit from the enhancements of a little sriracha, smoked salt or balsamic glaze.

So, have the confidence to step out from behind the flowery phrases and lay down some powerful, active verbs. Or, if your job is to bang out basic sentences day after day, try playing with the words and injecting a little poetry to surprise and delight the reader. Sprinkle them with sriracha.

No matter what your beat, if you find yourself working at one end of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald spectrum, the work will improve if you bring in some elements from the other side. All writers can benefit by exercising a new muscle.